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9.53 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I welcome this debate. It is good to see at least some hon. Members here, wishing to take part. I congratulate the hon. Member for

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Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) on his contribution, this morning and throughout this Parliament, on environmental issues. It is essential that some hon. Members are prepared continually to take up such issues, and I pay tribute to him for doing so. The way in which he opened his speech is important. He drew together all the strands of environmental destruction that are taking place, and underlined the importance of the Earth summit that is to take place later this year.

Frankly, the current rate of exploitation of the world's natural resources is totally unsustainable. The current process of economic planning and growth is leading to increased unsustainability, rather than greater protection for the world's natural resources. We have to change course--not just in this country, but worldwide--or we will be looking at total destruction within the next century.

Unfortunately, I do not suppose that environmental issues will be the main feature of the coming general election campaign. I wish that they would be, but unfortunately I doubt it. In some parts of the world, environmental issues are a major concern, and they ought to be here. They are a major concern where children are growing up in urban areas and suffering--as in London--from chronic asthma because of the use of fossil fuel-driven vehicles when electric vehicles would be better, or because of toxic waste dumping. They are a major concern for children growing up in west Africa, where toxic waste dumping on the beaches is routine as a way of evading European and north American regulations; or children growing up in shanty towns throughout Latin America and south Asia.

We have to deal with environmental issues and with the way in which people live, and, above all, the way in which we plan the future of the world. Although the Rio summit had many shortcomings, it at least recognised that there are limits to the growth that one can undertake and to the way in which we can exploit the world's natural resources. In that sense, it was a bringing together of all nations. Agenda 21, which came out of the summit, was extremely important.

The downside of the summit, however, was the side agenda that was not on the table at Rio. Closing down the UN office on multinational corporations, and the way in which western nations have cajoled third-world nations into supporting the general agreement on tariffs and trade, are leading to increased food dependency, world trade, pollution and environmental destruction for the poorest people in the poorest countries.

That shows the power of the mega-corporations of Europe and north America to squeeze the poorest people in the poorest countries. Increasingly, those issues will dominate political debate in the next 30 or 40 years, as the lack of natural resources for economic development in the northern countries becomes more apparent, and the dash for everyone else's oil, uranium, copper, gold, tin or whatever in the poorest countries comes to dominate politics.

There are signs of hope, however. This Parliament has at least signed the Antarctic treaty, which recognises that one cannot continue to exploit every section of the globe for ever. We have achieved the end of mineral exploration in Antarctica, and when all countries have finally got round to ratifying the treaty, we will achieve an environmental secretariat, which I hope will guarantee the

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permanent protection of that important area for scientific research and peaceful exploration rather than the exploitation of its natural resources.

I mention Antarctica because it acts as a laboratory for the whole planet. By taking ice-core samples there, we can see what we are doing to the world's air quality, what pollution is taking place, the amount of lead being pumped into the atmosphere and the amount of nuclear waste being pumped into the atmosphere as a result of testing. We can see the effects of global warming, as glacier movements speed up and the rise in sea levels begins to become very apparent. Those issues are crucial to our long-term survival.

In Islington, I am the chair of our local Agenda 21 forum. Such forums have been set up throughout the country in response to the Rio summit, and they are very exciting affairs. Large numbers of people come to take part in serious discussions of how they can try to create a more sustainable environment in a heavily built-up urban area. My constituency is the most urban part of the United Kingdom, yet we have a determined group of people trying to ensure that we have a better environment for everyone in the community to live in, but above all, that we try to play our part in sustainable economic planning. However, that cannot be done on a solely local basis, and we cannot plan the traffic policies of the country as a whole or stop the Government building roads that force more and more cars into London. That has to be done by national economic planning.

A future Labour Government must support Agenda 21 initiatives, and, above all, bring people together regionally, nationally and internationally to ensure that there is coherent policy making. It is no good our arguing for better public transport within our community if, at the same time, the car and fossil fuel lobby is so successful that more roads get built and there is more pollution and damage to the environment.

We must consider the serious consequences of the process of rapid economic growth and exploitation of natural resources. Every time that a crisis appears, something is done. The damage done to the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbon emissions became apparent, and something was done, but an awful lot of CFCs were then offloaded on to third-world countries, and are still in use today.

The refrigeration industry in many parts of the world is still dependent on outdated ozone-damaging technology, partly because of the way in which western countries protected their technological advances during the GATT negotiations to maintain their pre-eminence, showing little concern for environmental damage in other parts of the world.

Deforestation emphasises the way in which we wantonly and ridiculously use and waste vast quantities of paper without even troubling to recycle it. Much paper ends up in landfill, and much is used to print totally useless advertising material in bulky newspapers. It is all very well to talk about recycling, but we should also talk about not using the paper in the first place. Levels of forest destruction are horrendous, and we will all pay the price.

Many people do their best to save and increase forests, but, if we tell a third-world country with serious poverty and unemployment that is finding it difficult to feed its

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population that the only way forward is to build an export-led industry and destroy its natural resources to pay a totally unpayable debt to the west, we must accept that our trade and economic system is responsible for those mahogany trees being chopped down and that virgin forest being destroyed, never to be replaced.

We must also consider the way in which food and food production systems are developing. Many African and south Asian countries had a large degree of food self-sufficiency until 20 or 25 years ago, but GATT insists on a world free market in food, which means that the most powerful grain producers--basically, North America and to some extent Europe--can dominate, which leads to good agricultural land in the poorest countries being taken out of use, making those countries more dependent on what goes on in the west.

The British Government must play a role in GATT that encourages sustainable economic development. That does not mean an increase in ships passing each other carrying refrigerators one way and refrigerators the other, cars one way and cars the other; it means seriously considering the environmental costs of transporting consumer goods around the world that could be produced much nearer to home, and examining the question of food production, food dependency and the type of food that is being produced.

The thrust by the culture of the United States, in particular, for everyone to eat beefburgers is a major factor in the destruction of a large amount of forest land. Using agricultural land as pasture for beef cattle is of itself extremely wasteful of resources. We must seriously examine life styles as well as all the other factors.

I have asked many parliamentary questions of the Department of the Environment over the past year or so about climate change and global warming. If one looks at temperature levels historically, it is obvious that the problem is serious and that there is an accelerator factor: it is a question not of a 0.1 per cent. or a 0.05 per cent. increase over a given period, but of an exponential increase. Ice is melting in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, and sea levels are beginning to rise.

The implications of global warming are massive: not only rising sea levels and huge climatic changes but the creation of desert areas and the serious loss of food production capability in many areas. The situation is urgent: some Governments are committed to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, but they need to revise their estimates and bring forward the reductions, as well as considering seriously the implications of economic development elsewhere in the world.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North spoke of the problems of the growth of the consumer market in China. If a quarter of the world's population suddenly wants to have motor cars in the same proportion as even the poorest European country, there will be another 300 million cars on the road in a short time, and all the pollution that goes with that.

We should recognise that the people campaigning for a safer environment, be they opposing unnecessary road building in this country or forest destruction in other parts of the world, are all basically arguing for exactly the same thing.

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting some visitors from Ecuador, who explained the problems they are having with the destruction of the forest and mangrove

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swamps, the way in which North American and European oil and gas companies wantonly destroy the environment in their mad dash to find more oil and gas to sell cheaply elsewhere, and the way in which the Government of Ecuador is constantly told by outside economic advisers that such exploitation is an economic necessity.

A briefing document on Ecuador says:

In other words, Latin America should destroy everything it has as quickly as possible, and hang the consequences.

However, many people in the poorest areas of the Amazonian region of Ecuador are determined that that should not happen. They want a sustainable life style to continue, and they do not want forests to be destroyed and rivers polluted. They want a sustainable economic system in their country, as many of us do in many other parts of the world, but they cannot achieve that alone, because of the power of market forces from around the world and because of the way in which Ecuador is told that the way out of its economic problems is to export more goods, destroy its natural environment and exploit its natural resources as rapidly as possible.

I look forward to significant changes in Government policy in this country when my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) becomes the responsible Minister, and above all to the ability of ordinary people to say that they want a sustainable world, not one that it is busy destroying itself. It is possible to achieve sustainability, but not if we predicate everything we do on the myth that rapid economic growth and consumerism can solve all the problems. There need to be fundamental changes in attitudes. At least this debate gives us an opportunity to say something about that.

I only wish that the general election campaign was going to be dominated by crucial environmental issues. If this one is not, future elections will be. It is wrong that our children suffer from asthma throughout urban Britain because of air pollution, that the rivers of Latin America are being destroyed by industrial waste, and that mammals that have existed for far longer than human beings are being destroyed because we cannot be bothered to live with the environment, but instead try to exploit it.

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